August 20, 2014

This story appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Dispatches, the MSF Canada magazine. To download the complete magazine or to read previous issues, please visit our Publications page.

Read a Q&A with Richard Mommersteeg about life in the field, the recruitment process and how a Canadian firefighter is a perfect fit as a logistician for MSF


By Christina Campbell

It didn’t take long for Richard Mommersteeg to find himself doing what he knows best on his first mission with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Central African Republic (CAR).

When a flying ember lit a large storage tent on fire, he was on the scene in seconds, fire extinguisher in hand. Thirty years of experience with the London, Ont., fire department made the difference in that moment, and helped preserve the valuable supplies stored in the tent.


The right kind of experience

Quenching flames was just part of a professional background that served Mommersteeg well in CAR, where he worked as a logistician with two separate MSF projects. As the former captain of a fire brigade, he had once been responsible for managing firefighting crews — experience that would come in handy in CAR, where he oversaw 40 national staff members who worked as drivers, guards and construction workers for MSF.

Working in high-stress environments was also not new to Mommersteeg, while years of doing home renovations meant that he was comfortable carrying out technical responsibilities such as running electrical generators and managing fuel supplies. But the most useful skill Mommersteeg brought with him to CAR was an ability to know how to relax. “My training as a firefighter taught me how to calm down,” he says.



Knowing how to remain calm

To help himself take breaks, Mommersteeg started working on what he calls his various “Sunday projects.” Drawing on his basic carpentry skills, he designed and built furniture for the hospital, including a comfortable bed for women in labour and a brace for a boy who had been shot in the hip. To help his colleagues – and himself – unwind, he also set up a volleyball net and assembled wind chimes at the MSF base.

This ability to calm down became especially useful when Mommersteeg moved from Zemio, the MSF project in CAR’s south east where he spent his first seven months, to Bossangoa, in the country’s northwest. Fighting between the predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels and the Christian-affiliated anti-Balaka forces – the opposing sides of the civil conflict that has engulfed CAR in horrendous violence over the past year – had intensified, and Bossangoa was the site of a number of clashes.



The MSF project in the area was supporting both Christians and Muslims who had taken refuge in nearby church and school grounds. “One time I found a group gathering at the hospital who wanted to harm Muslims,” he recalls. “I was able to keep them out of the hospital building. I took stones out of people’s hands and told them to take their fight somewhere else.”


'We started saving people 15 minutes after it was over'

Mommersteeg’s least favourite experience working in CAR was when the fighting became so intense the MSF team had to retreat to a “safe room” in the base. “We had 30 expats and national staff in the safe room,” he says. “I did not enjoy hearing bullets ricochet off the roof and seeing the fear in the eyes around me, seeing how nervous everyone was.”                                                                                                            

Some of Mommersteeg’s favourite recollections, however, flow directly out of those low points. “We started saving people 15 minutes after the shooting was over,” he recalls. “In a month of mess, all of the other NGOs were in lockdown and going nowhere without armed guards. None of that for MSF – we were going to the hospital and working through the nights.”


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